FFRF Saves Elkhart Community Center from Brink of Sale to Religious Organization

Daniel Dick, Northern Indiana Atheists

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The city of Elkhart, located in North-Central Indiana, is home to a diverse community, but many of its 52,000 residents live below the poverty line. For these folks, community centers are vital for building a strong community because they provide resources for education and physical activity. The Tolson Center, which is located on the south side of the city within walking distance of the city’s housing projects and many other low-income families, is a not-for-profit that receives funding from the city to provide a computer lab, free Wi-Fi, arts and crafts, mentoring and tutoring, a full gym, playground, baseball and soccer fields, sports clinics, leagues, a recreation room, community garden, a Council on Aging Enrichment Program, a cardio area and weightlifting, field trips, meeting spaces, community service opportunities, and special community events. Since the YMCA closed its doors in 2015 (https://www.southbendtribune.com/ne...), the Tolson Center is now the only nonreligious community center in Elkhart.

This year, the city council decided to stop funding the center and sell it to Lifeline Youth Ministries, a religious organization. Lifeline’s mission is to “share God’s love by providing inner city youth with caring role models, teaching basic life skills, developing student leaders, and connecting students to local churches.” At Lifeline, bible lessons are compulsory for those who wish to benefit from their services (http://elkhartlifeline.com/). On October 5, 2017, the city council planned to vote on a measure to sell the Tolson Center property to Lifeline Youth Ministries at a discount (below market value) along with a sweetheart deal of $300,000 taxpayer dollars to be used for building the facility – and no other bids were considered for this deal. This “sale” would make it impossible for the city’s residents to participate at a nonreligious community center without traveling outside of the city, and it would force the city’s taxpayers to support one particular expression of worship, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. A move this bold – extending special rights and privileges to religious organizations – is straight out of the theocratic handbook.

And this is likely what would have happened ... except one Elkhart citizen and taxpayer alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (https://ffrf.org/) about this matter. The FFRF quickly responded to the city’s attempt to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from financially supporting any church. Hence, the Elkhart city council tabled the decision to end funding to the Tolson Center and gift it to a church. Now that the motion has been tabled, Mayor Tim Neese has formed an advisory council to oversee the plans for the future of the Tolson Center. The first meeting of the advisory council was on November 22, 2017. Dwight Fish, the city councilperson who represents the district where the Tolson Center is located, was not invited to be part of this advisory council.

3rd District Councilperson David E Henke (R), who fought the measure to table the illegal sale, called opposition to it “racist,” by which he meant “anti-white” and “anti-religion” (https://youtu.be/BYPVN7nVpGE). But a backroom sweetheart deal such as this would have made any other organization envious had they been given the opportunity to place a bid ... but the Lifeline church was the only organization allowed to bid on this spectacular discounted property (with a $300,000 sweetener). The residents of Elkhart, however, are not buying Henke’s odd explanations. A Facebook page called “Support Tolson Center” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/120...) has emerged to encourage open dialogue among interested community members who wish to share information and take action.

Northern Indiana Atheists (NIA) supports the Elkhart community and opposes any attempts of our government to extend special rights and privileges to any religious organization, especially when it affects the most vulnerable of our community. Visit NIA’s website (www.northernindianaatheists.com) for more information on how to report church and state violations and/or get involved in various community support activities.

Troy Moss